BEYOND BUSY - Keeping Commitments in Check this School Year

No matter what your situation, you can probably relate to a scenario like this: Short on time, you've skipped the gym, and are helping your child with homework when your church leaves a message asking you to chair a committee. This reminds you that you need to buy a classroom gift for your daughter's teacher. Later, tired and relieved that you've nearly completed your to-do list, you begin to brainstorm tomorrow's work presentation when you remember the envelopes you promised the PTA you'd stuff by tomorrow. You might grumble under your breath with every envelope grudgingly stuffed and wonder how you got here, but experts say by carefully evaluating requests for your time, defining your priorities, and making an effort to take time for yourself, you'll be prepared for the fresh batch of requests bound to appear in back-to-school backpacks.

Going with your priorities and passions

Sally Robertson, a New York City life coach, stand-up comedian, mother of two, and active school volunteer, knows from personal experience and from her professional work that most parents juggle a dizzying array of commitments and activities. She says parents over-commit themselves when they make decisions based on what they perceive they should do, rather than what they actually want to do. "Modern parents have so little time that it is agonizing to spend what little time we do have doing things we don't want to do," she says. Avoid this, she advises, by honoring your gut reaction when fielding requests and making a conscious effort to commit to only those things that will excite and energize you, align with your core values and priorities, and be truly enjoyable. One easy way to help ensure a good fit is to seek out volunteer opportunities that allow you to merge your priorities, interests and unique talents. For example, Robertson's husband, a dance instructor, volunteers by teaching salsa at her daughter's school. A client who owns a drama studio produces her children’s class plays.

Finding the right combination

Many parents agree that offering their time and talents to causes close to their heart while honoring their own priorities is a win-win situation. Andrea Kretchmer, a full-time mother of three children who attend three different schools on opposite ends of Manhattan, says anything involving her children is her highest priority. She's a PTA president, the manager of a little league baseball team, and a communications chair for her daughter's nursery school. She also volunteers at her synagogue's Sisterhood. She spends 30-40 hours per week volunteering, but enjoys using her skills to contribute to the things she most values: "I have really loved it. It's been fulfilling, fascinating, and fun. I've discovered it's important to me to be a leader and an organizer of people."

Andy Chen is an attorney and the involved father of three children who participate in a variety of extracurricular activities — ballet, golf, soccer and martial arts. Because he feels it's vital that the parents, the PTA and the administration work together to make the school a better place for the students, he serves as a liaison between the parents of The Lower Lab School (P.S. 77), the PTA and the administration. He cherishes his volunteer time, because he knows it has positively affected the quality of his children's education; it has made him "feel like a part of the school community."

Kathy Landau is the mother of three and owner of On-The-Go Style (, a clothing design company in Manhattan. Her active children have many places to be — religious classes, several different sports, dance, theater, and music activities. Despite her schedule, Kathy started volunteering at school to show her support, but she continued to take on greater roles because of the positive impact her efforts had on her children: "I was amazed by the pride they felt when we stood side by side working an event together and the pleasure they derive from knowing that school means as much to me as it does to them." Today, Kathy is the co-president of the PTA and also a member of the school's Leadership Team, where she sees the impact of all contributions: "Every donation — of time or energy or interest — has an impact. It all counts and it all makes a difference."

When your plate is already full

No matter how good your intentions or how rewarding you find volunteering, there are only a finite number of hours in any day, and even the best multi-tasker can't say yes to every request without something suffering. If you find yourself short on time, but faced with requests you find worthwhile, consider alternatives. Robertson says parents often confuse "having it all" with "doing it all."

Cynthia Wang works full-time at a bank and is a mother of a fourth grader at Manhattan School for Children, P.S. 333. Because her work schedule does not always allow her to be present for activities during school hours, she edits the school's newsletter and also compiles and distributes a school-wide email that provides information to parents and helps the PTA run more efficiently. She's able to work on these projects in the evening and still fill a vital need.

What if you've carefully evaluated a request and decided it just doesn't work for you right now? Simply state the same, without guilt and without over-explaining or repeatedly apologizing. "Don't feel uncomfortable or bad in any way," says Robertson. "You are doing the best you can, and it's better to have one slightly uncomfortable conversation than to agree to something that will add stress to your life." Remember that saying yes to something when you don't have the time "means that you/and or your family may suffer as a result."

Andy Chen believes "any amount of time or effort that a parent can contribute is greatly appreciated, however it's a disservice to accept a responsibility if you would not be able to devote the time or attention it deserves." Denise Brecher, a mother of two who works part-time at the 92nd Street Y and is a former PTA president, is simply honest when she can't commit because of time constraints. She's also uses humor and says her husband will divorce her if she takes on one more thing.

Volunteer for your own self care

Experts agree that valuing your own time and making self-care a priority are by no means selfish, and actually make you a better parent. By fulfilling your own needs, you'll be more cheerful and efficient, and you'll have the time and energy to be fully present for the tasks you choose to take on. Parents often tell Robertson that they've given up even small, inexpensive things that used to bring them joy or relaxation. So she urges parents to regularly schedule self-care tasks like exercising, going to a concert, getting a manicure — whatever makes them feel happy and renewed.

Andy Chen believes a balance between obligations and personal fulfillment is vital: "It doesn't make for a happy home with a stressed-out parent." He makes fun activities he can enjoy with his family — like golf, theater, museums and concerts — a high priority. Denise Brecher is adamant about exercising at least twice per week. If she's short on time, she'll jog to her children's school at pick-up time.

We as parents are often selflessly available to our families, our friends, our work, and our communities. But rarely do we care for ourselves with the same intensity, and we often don't realize at the time that over-saying yes can mean saying no to the things we really care about. You're probably volunteering because you want your children to have a wonderful, rich experience during their school years, so look closely at your schedule to ensure you're allowing enough of yourself so you can give them just that. Shoot for enjoyable activities that get you closer to what you really want, and leave time for your own self-care so that you can be fully present for the activities you've carefully chosen.

10 Tips To Avoid Becoming Over-Committed

1. Always meet your physical needs first. Enough sleep, eating right and finding time to exercise are essential if you are going to be efficient and focused on extra tasks.

2. Request time to check your calendar before committing. Then ask yourself if you can comfortably complete and be enthusiastic about the request.

3. Generally overestimate the amount of time a task should take — and then ask yourself if you're still willing to do it.

4. Make sure you're comfortable with what you are giving up to commit to the request.

5. Whether you accept or decline a request, define what you intend to do in the future: "I'm swamped right now, but will be less busy for the fall festival"; "I can help set up, but I need to leave by 11"; "I'm homeroom mom this year and am completely swamped with that."

6. Consciously fill time you would normally spend over-committing to your own care. Once you internalize that saying no could mean going to the gym or taking a long walk, it becomes easier.

7. Make a list of all the things for which you intend to volunteer and the things for which you already have. Refer to the list often to keep yourself on track. Realize that you've volunteered before and will again.

8. Speak up if you're not being utilized effectively. Discussing colors of class T-shirts for half-an-hour or gossiping wastes everyone's time. Don't be afraid to say, "I have an appointment after this, so I need to move to something concrete."

9. Try to under-promise and over-deliver. Instead of promising a task in two days, commit to a week. When you finish in four days, the requester is thrilled and you're not as stressed.

10. Don't let guilt have a place in your life. Only you can define what contributes to your unique and necessary life balance.